Chelene Knight and Jim Nason’s (Writing) Advice Surrounding Trauma, Home, and Parenting

by Sylvie Côté

I attended the Afternoon Book Chat at McNally Robinson today, listening to the discussion between the director of Thin Air, Charlene Diehl, and authors Chelene Knight and Jim Nason. Knight wrote a memoir entitled Dear Current Occupant, which focuses on her experience growing up in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, in which she, her brother, and her mother moved houses about thirty times. Nason’s novel, Spirit of a Thousand Dead Animals, tells the story of Skye Rayburn, an elderly veterinarian who struggles with parenting her grandson. The discussion centered around trauma, home, and parenting.

We learned valuable writing advice. Both authors resonated with the idea of travelling—literally and figuratively—to the scariest places within themselves as a source for their writing, with Knight saying the practice is “terrifying, but fun.” Both authors explained how opening one door to these spaces of pain and trauma can unlock door after door, providing helpful material not only for our writing, but also for personal growth. As well, Nason explained that writers must be surprised by their work, otherwise their readers will not be surprised, with Knight chiming in that the point of reading and writing is to walk away changed.

Although everyone experiences emotional pain, carrying it with us is not a useful practice. Rather, Knight suggests that she, like her novel, is a fragment where the cracks are filled with positivity and beauty. For instance, writing her memoir was a work of healing for herself because she had the opportunity to see both what scared her and what helped her. Furthermore, by including her mother while writing the book, who features prominently in the memoir, the two developed a closer relationship as adults. This relationship was impossible during Knight’s childhood due to the systems of oppression (the patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism) that made her mother’s responsibilities as a parent difficult to achieve. Knight established that moving homes so often as a child meant that she developed a similarly complex relationship with “home”; home, for Knight, is about collaboration, safety, security, and support from others, and is not necessarily a physical space.

Nason related that his fictional character, Skye Rayburn, likewise develops a complex relationship with “home.” Skye follows her Canadian husband from Scotland to Ontario, yet never feels settled. She is “homeless,” Nason asserted. She also does not feel accomplished as a mother yet uses her daughter’s death as a chance to parent her grandson—another chance to prove herself. For example, she finds that her skills and affection for animals helps her navigate parenthood and trauma, by using analogies of how animals react as a way to explain bullies.

Overall, I appreciated the writing advice of moving towards what scares us as a source of inspiration and of being surprised by what we find there, in addition to the heartfelt discussion we can all relate to: parents and parenting, belonging and home, and the ways trauma and systems shape our perception of our world and ourselves.

From ‘Afternoon Book Chat’ with Chalene Knight and Jim Nason on September 26, 2018.